Last modified on November 18th, 2020
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In the past year, the multifamily industry has turned to technology to overcome the unique obstacles brought on by COVID-19. Many owners and managers had intended to gradually transition into some of these solutions that enhanced efficiency, but then practically overnight, they found themselves having to pivot when nationwide shutdowns were put in place in March.

Pre-COVID-19, many felt they were making great strides toward finding new and better ways to operate their properties. So, they weren’t afraid to dive in headfirst when it came to changing how they operate their offices, conduct tours, or communicate with their teams and residents. We reached out to several real estate executives to find out how they have adapted their operations during the pandemic and how they are using technology to drive net operating income (NOI). Here are are the main takeaways from our conversations:

An Accelerated Roadmap to Tech Adoption

Throughout 2020 we have witnessed the property management industry’s digital transformation. While mobile technologies used to be considered ‘nice to haves,’ they are now ‘must haves’ for doing business. Dru Armstrong, President of Grace Hill believes this transition is something property managers must accept and embrace:

 “It’s important for property managers to acknowledge that the industry has arrived at a new normal as the result of COVID-19. A new normal means that your underlying business operations have to change, including your policies and what you’re training people on. The challenges our industry is facing this year have pushed many fence-sitters over into technology, and generally have accelerated peoples’ roadmaps to tech adoption.”

However, even as the industry has rapidly adopted tech, many are still holding back. Andy Turner, PCAM and Owner of Spaces Management, has been offering mobile services for years, but what may be common for his business is rare for others, “Those are simple things, but it amazes me how many firms still do not offer these services. We have offered these services for more than 10 years through our software providers. It greatly streamlines the entire process and provides a better customer experience.”

Tony Cook, COO of Bay Property Management Group, feels having the right software has enabled them to be more efficient and productive, despite moving to a remote work environment, “[our software] allows us to be efficient across the board — even after we had to shift more toward working from home. We were set up to be able to do this pre-pandemic, so it was just a matter of getting with our IT team to help us to make it happen.”

Among the mobile tools property management businesses have been relying on most in 2020, virtual showings and AI leasing assistants have come to the forefront. Cindy Clare, COO of Bell Partners, says that during the pandemic her company has learned a lot about artificial intelligence-based technology and how to best provide for virtual tours, among other adaptations:

 “When deciding when it makes sense to add technology, sometimes, we are all just so busy that we think we can’t possibly throw in one more thing to ask our teams to adopt. Well, sometimes we do need to throw in one more thing, because that thing ultimately makes us better and makes our teams’ onsite jobs easier. We’d been dipping our toe into this pre-COVID-19, but the pandemic immediately forced us to start using that innovation to a much higher degree.”

A Comprehensive Platform Delivers Countless Savings

Software that combines property management functionality with financial tools all on the same platform can save businesses a lot of time and money. For instance, JD Chase, COO of The Apartment Company, has found greater efficiency since implementing AppFolio’s comprehensive platform, “What we’re saving when it comes to time and resources is invaluable. By freeing up time for our staff to connect with our residents’ humanity during these times, our software solution allows us to improve our customer service. And improving in that way is a big focus for our company right now – it’s our vision of where we’re trying to go.”

In addition to time and cost savings and improved customer service, a single solution can also increase operational efficiency. Tom Wood, Owner & CEO of JA Wood Management, says his team’s ability to work from home combined with functionality of AppFolio has greatly improved their operational efficiency:

“By adopting online payment capabilities, we have saved a considerable amount of time for our finance and accounting departments. We’re asking our clients to save their envelopes and postage stamps. And we now spend far less time opening mail – and on processing overall – because the majority (55 percent) of our customers are paying online. And that number is rising.”

He also estimates the company’s bookkeepers’ time spent on payments has been cut in half, “Another time-saver is that we no longer must manage 70 different checkbooks (one for each of our 70 clients). We use only one and we can approve the invoice payments online. It takes less time to make payments to our customers, so they receive their funds faster.”

Jordan Levine, Co-Founder of Pelican Property Management —which has close to 6,000 doors across a range of property types — has also been able to optimize his accounting operations with an automated accounts payable system and plans to continue to use it post-pandemic:

“Our accounting department has been working virtually since mid-March and it hasn’t skipped a beat. Invoices are being paid quickly and on time. Nothing about it is done using a physical process. Over time, we’ve refined our process and improved it. Whenever we do return to the office, we’re going to keep all these systems, because it’s all about managing the workflow. When your team is not all together, it becomes very difficult.”

Levine says that working through “budget season” is one of the most horrible experiences for most property managers, “But our new budget prep features are fantastic. Needing Excel to spread different percentages into the budget file no longer is necessary. We can now do it directly into the system: View our old budgets, import our old budgets, and then simply update them. I can now do my budget in about 5 minutes. You don’t need a finance background to do a budget. It looks intimidating, but it’s not.”

Improving Efficiency With Tech-Driven Processes

Choosing the proper technology also helps operators to move away from traditional, inefficient practices and streamline processes. Tom Wood says the inspection process at JA Wood Management is now more efficient because a leasing staff member is no longer required to conduct the inspection on the premises:

 “Before, the leasing agent had to walk the property, take notes, shoot pictures and upload it all to their computer when they returned to the office. The entire process now can be done on the app, and by any team member. For example, a maintenance technician can get on their phone (or FaceTime) with the leasing team member, who can talk them through what needs to be done. And because it’s all on the app, there is no time needed to upload it all.”

Maintenance benefits extend to other common tasks, such as move-outs, too. For example, Stacy Holden, Senior Director and Industry Principal at AppFolio notes: 

“The moment that a resident moves out, a clock starts and various people are tasked with what they need to be doing. For instance, maybe the maintenance tech has three different tasks to do. The leasing agent has two different tasks, and they have a given time to do them. The platform tracks on the progress, and if those tasks aren’t being done, the supervisor is notified.”

Carina Lyons, Vice President of Concept Property Management, also is benefiting in regard to maintenance, “The software streamlines the entire work-order process – from when the residents submit their orders to how fast our tech team can get out to do the job. We can rely on AppFolio instead of having to have a maintenance tech grab paper copies of the work orders. Now, the technicians just log into the system, do the job, and then lets us know when it’s been completed. We can then follow-up with residents to make sure they received great service.”

Maintenance Made Better

When it comes to maintenance, technology can drive efficiency and allow residents to self-serve, freeing up teams to focus on what matters.  Jennifer Fischer, Director of Operations at Skyline Property Management, says having an online resident portal has reduced stress levels for her residents and her staff:

“We’re able to provide better customer service for our residents because they are able to go onto their community portal at any time. This means they can come home after working late, for example, and have the ability to make all of the requests that in the past might have required them to speak to a staff member. By making a request online, one of our technicians can be at their apartment within a half-hour, instead of the resident having to wait until 8:00 in the morning to call our office and schedule a repair visit.”

Employees Prefer Automated Processes 

Property management executives must be strategic in how they present their technological investments to their team members.

Too often with technology, there can be a sense that it’s going to reduce a company’s staffing expenses or even headcount. “I’ve not seen that to be true. By giving our team technology tools, it enables them to perform more efficiently,” says Cindy Clare of Bell Partners, “ If technology can make the customer experience better for us, then ultimately, the overall performance at the property improves.”

Dru Armstrong of Grace Hill adds that real-time tools that measure resident satisfaction, residents’ intent to renew, and address online reputation-management continue to be the most useful, “By being able to pivot as circumstances evolve, we can take some of the burden off of the team by automating processes and giving them the chance to alleviate the immediate challenges they are facing.”

COVID-19 has created many obstacles when it comes to property management operations. However, property management businesses who have embraced tech-driven solutions have been able to boost operational efficiency and drive NOI, even during uncertain times. By putting technology to work and relying on automation and virtual tools, you can provide a better customer experience, maximize performance, and uncover new opportunities.

 

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